Interview

Interview with Capitol Hill Style

Today’s interview is with Belle – D.C. resident, fashion observer and writer of the blog, Capitol Hill Style. I have to admit that my exposure to D.C. has been fairly limited – except for a cursory reading of Primary Colors years ago – which I’ve been drily informed does not make me an expert. I do have a lot of friends who work in D.C. in a variety of positions and it’s always been fascinating to hear their stories about the unique culture and personalities in their world – both in and outside of work.

Thus I was very excited about the opportunity to ask some Belle some questions about her thoughts on D.C. style – do’s and don’ts and some advice about looking stylish while working in Capitol Hill. I also included some of my personal picks for D.C. style staples throughout. Enjoy!

Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live?

After a long career as a staffer in the House of Representatives, I am now a lobbyist for a large non-profit association.  I currently live in the Penn Quarter neighborhood in D.C.

Suits: A must for many Hill jobs

From left to right: 1) J.Crew 2) Theory 3) Akris

When did you first start working in D.C. and in what general industry have you been employed?

I have been working in or around the government and Capitol Hill since moving to D.C. at the end of 2004.

Which of your own “D.C. style budget levels” do you relate to – elected official, staffer, or unpaid intern?  What are the key style items for that position?

I think I relate the most to the mid-priced styles.  I’m lucky enough to have a little money to spend on clothing, but I certainly can’t afford designer names.

Some classic bags in a variety of prices

From left to right: 1) Cambridge Satchel 2) Prada 3) Marc by Marc Jacobs

Can you describe a little bit about D.C. style, and what makes it different than other areas? What are some differences that are real, and what are some common misconceptions?

What makes D.C. different is that no one is from here.  It’s rare that you meet someone who was D.C.-born.  As a result, people bring their sense of style from the place they came from.  You see Californians in white jeans and sandals in November.  You see Westerners in cowboy boots and hats.  You see people from New York City who wear all black.  And you see a lot of folks from the South who wear pearls and bow ties.

The most common misconception about D.C. is that it’s Hollywood for ugly people.  There are a lot of attractive, well-dressed people involved in politics.  But there are, of course, people who could use some help in the style department.

Nancy Pelosi in a Hermes scarf

What are the items that you think are “must haves” for any aspirant Hill workers?

You need a good selection of well-fitting suits.  You need pencil skirts and silk blouses.  And you need comfortable, well made shoes.  The marble floors and cobblestones are murder on your feet.

Kirsten Gillibrand, via Vogue

Kirsten Gillibrand, via Vogue

Are there any women out there that you’d call fabulous examples of DC style?

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand are both well dressed.  They exemplify what it means to maintain a sense of personal style while dressing for a conservative environment.

How does the DC woman feel about obvious logos? What would she never be caught dead wearing?

Obvious logos, whether they be on purses or on clothing, are not stylish.  You paid for the item, why do you also need to advertise for the company?

D.C. women should never wear Crocs, Uggs or sweatpants in public.  They should never carry a Vera Bradley bag.  And their skirts should always be an appropriate length and their clothes should never be too tight.

Some investment worthy dresses

From left to right: 1) DVF 2) Theory 3) Trina Turk

Can you share a little bit about your style? What are some of your favorite go to brands, and some items that you’ve gotten the most wear out of?

I wear a lot of J.Crew, as do most Hill Staffers.  I also love Nanette Lepore, Rebecca Taylor, Malene Birger, Black Halo, Milly and Zara.  I wear my Zara pieces almost to death.  It’s so great to be able to buy a trendy piece at a reasonable price that I can wear for one season and then discard when I’m tired of it.  I’ve also worn my J.Crew pencil skirts until they fall apart.

Pumps that are beautiful and practical

From left to right: 1) Tory Burch 2) Corso Como 3) Manolo Blahnik

Can you share some advice about style/shopping/budget that you’ve learned over the years that you think would be helpful?

It’s far better to buy one $200 piece that will last for years than five under-$50 pieces that won’t last the summer.  Until you have a foundation of good quality shoes, skirts, suits and dresses, you shouldn’t be indulging in trends.  Instead, set aside a few dollars a month, and then a few times a year, buy something that is very well made and will last for a long time.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, via PRNewswire

What are some of your other passions and hobbies?

I love going to the museums on the National Mall and the many small theaters around D.C.  I also spend a lot of time going to restaurants and trying new recipes.  Food is really my great passion.

And finally – please share something surprising about yourself!

Something surprising about me?  I learned to shoot when I was a very young child, and I still love to shoot trap or go to the pistol range with my family.  Fashion and guns, I’m a woman of diverse interests.

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I adore that Belle’s advice is so similar to many other women I’ve interviewed from all over the world…save your pennies for a few quality pieces that will last over cheap buys that will quickly fall apart.

Working in Silicon Valley, it’s quite easy to forget that there are jobs and industries where suits, ties and pumps are all part of a standard dress code. Belle’s description of Capitol Hill and D.C. attire has been wonderful in helping paint a picture of the fashion of scene and it was fascinating to learn more details. Thank you Belle for your time and expertise – and for more of Belle, make sure to check out her blog, Capitol Hill Style.

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  • Sonya
    June 6, 2012 at 8:12 am

    I’m from Maryland/DC so this was such a fun read. I’m with Belle on the Vera Bradley bags!

  • urbanjunglefashion
    June 6, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I really love your interviews! I enjoy that you interview woman from all over the globe in different industries. Everyone always has awesome insight on what works for them.

    • Katherine
      June 6, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Aww thank you!

  • chocolatecookiesandcandies
    June 6, 2012 at 10:04 am

    I know friends of mine who work in banks particularly in London often have to subscribe to conservative outfits like these. In my old job, I’d have to say that my daily uniform looked like the pantsuits. I was in Theory suits everyday, 5 days a week!

    • Katherine
      June 6, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Yes – when I had to wear suits, Theory was my savior!

  • Anonymous
    June 6, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Capitol Hill Style is one of my FAVORITE blogs, so glad you interviewed Belle

  • DRTVrMoi
    June 6, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I launched my career in DC and most of my female colleagues would have greatly benefitted from Belle’s blog. It’s a tough town, perhaps more challenging than NYC, but fashion wise, it’s 20 years behind any other city in America.

  • hera
    June 6, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    It is interesting to finally read about the D.C. style. Never too tight, well suited items. I learned my lesson during my internship 🙂

    Yes NY people wear all black (like myself from time to time), mostly lawyers in all black though.

  • Tabitha
    June 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    I just googled the VB bags – oh dear!
    This was wonderful, I could almost fit in on “The Hill” !

  • Nelah
    June 6, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    Another great interview, thank you for sharing her. I automatically thought about suits, ties and those conservative formal business attires when thinking about Washington DC. Surely is an icon. It is not very common around here in my area where engineers and IT folks dress casually in polo and jeans from Mon-Fri. I would love to look polished from head to toe at times but that will be too formal. Last time i wore suit was 6 years ago when went for a job interview.

    That orange Prada bag has been on my list for a while now. Totally love it.

  • Atiqa
    June 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    I really enjoyed this interview as I do all your interviews. I especially love the part about what DC women should not wear! Made me laugh.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • SR
    June 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    She works for the NRA – not exactly what most of your readers would think of when they hear a “non-profit organization” – plus she just won 60k on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, so I don’t buy that she “can’t afford designer names”. I usually love your interviews, Katherine, and I hope you won’t delete this comment. I can understand wanting to maintain some anonymity (although Abra has done interviews about CapHill Style using her real name), but there’s a big difference between that and deliberately misrepresenting yourself in order to seem more sympathetic or likable.
    Here are the links – I’m really not a crazy stalker, all this stuff came up on the first page of Google search for Abra Belke.
    http://www.yatedo.me/p/Abra+Belke/normal/d929aac67dd4cfc8077c2b934e0d4e81
    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1111/67774.html
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/abrabelke
    http://www.academic-articles.com/bubble-on-the-potomac

    • margot
      June 8, 2012 at 7:12 pm

      I’d agree that this interview is subtly misrepresentative. I live in DC and have worked on the Hill. Spending about 4 years on the Hill, as I believe is what “Belle” did, is not exactly a “long career,” especially when one hasn’t even made it passed the lower ranks of leg aid. And working for the NRA (which has the highest salaries in the nonprofit world) and winning cash on game shows does not make one a pauper or middle-income (at least based on statistical data of average earnings in the US or DC).

      I do agree with the suggestion to shun obvious labels. Being a walking billboard for companies should stop in high school, if not before. This is one of the many reasons I’m amazed that woman love the LV bags with “LV” written all over them. I’ll buy a bag because I love it and because it’s good quality and well-styled, not to flash hundreds of “LVs” in people’s faces to compensate for my insecurities.

    • Belle
      June 11, 2012 at 11:33 am

      All-The NRA is technically a non-profit, and this interview was done before I was in TIME Magazine, so I was still relying heavily on my pseudonymity. Yes, I spent almost five years on the Hill, so not a super long time, but longer than many, and about 2/3 of my working life.

      I make a similar salary off the Hill as I did on it, mid-upper five figures. I also have over $120k in student loan debt, which is where the $40k I picked up on Millionaire (after taxes) went. I still can’t afford designer names, and I still shop at Zara, J.CREW and Banana just like I did when I was a staffer. I certainly wasn’t trying to make myself sound sympathetic, I’m not poor but I’m not wearing Jimmy Choos and Dior either.

      • Katherine
        June 11, 2012 at 1:22 pm

        Thanks Belle for taking the time to respond – and all that contributed, I think this was a very interesting discussion 🙂

    • sarah
      June 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm

      i dont begrudge the moving off the hill for more money, or making a little on a game show and i dont think she misrepresented herself on the blog. but finding out that the “non profit organization” she works for now is actually the NRA has really made me lose all respect for her. she seemed so smart and relatable; i hope in a way this was a move purely for the salary…not that that negates working for such a terrible organization, but at least I will pretend thats her mindset so i can continue to stomach reading her blog, which was formerly a favorite of mine.

  • Helen
    June 6, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Yes the D.C. vibe is very liberating. I’m from the South with its laid back sensibilities. D.C. is fast pace not as much as New York but the air is filled with a passion for justice and to bring together minds that want to change something, somehow. I was in D.C. for a week at Presidential Classroom, my junior year of high school. To visit my senator and see Capitol Hill was an amazing experience. I was a wide eyed, eager 16 year old, fascinated by how my country worked day in and day out. Then a good friend got her Masters at Georgetown, and I helped her moved there. Spent a week around Georgetown and I felt like it was a 2nd home to me.

    Your interview makes me miss D.C.

  • SS
    June 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm

    Thanks for an interesting interview. Even though I live in DC area, my situation is totally different- so this interview is really interesting to me.

  • anna
    June 6, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Her blog is great. My style need to be more conservative in the future for my career.

  • FASHION IMPERATIVE
    June 7, 2012 at 5:42 am

    This interview is amazing, love it! 🙂

    A.
    FASHION IMPERATIVE

  • RosaLovesDC
    June 7, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Thank you for this fabulous interview. I adore Belle’s blog. She was one of the first blogs I found when I moved to DC and her style posts should be read by all women working in the Hill, she’s smart and knows DC style. I also hate Vera Bradley bags, they can make a long ride in the metro very nauseating.

  • Whitney Worthington
    June 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Awesome post and I totally agree as a government worker in Virginia. She is right on about a $200 piece being better than raiding Forever 21 for 5 pieces that might last a year if you are lucky. And even when sober the marble floors and cobblestones are murder – I have bitten it so many times in stilettos!

  • FashionableLena
    June 7, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I moved to Virginia when my husband was appointed to work for the EPA almost a year ago. We go to DC every weekend as we only live 9 miles outside of the city. Being from the South where we love our big trucks, I never thought that I would ever take the train (subway) anywhere. However, DC drivers are horrible, and I hate driving there. The museums are amazing, and we’ve been to 15 of the 16 Smithsonians, Monticello, and Mt. Vernon.
    Being from Texas, I can say that I was leery of being able to find anything in color. I love color! But, sometimes when I’m walking around, I do notice the difference. It’s true that you will meet people from all over. It’s an interesting place to live, and I’m happy to give my two kids the opportunities and experiences that they couldn’t get from living in Houston. But…I can’t wait to get back to the Texas!

    • Katherine
      June 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience – I’ve heard horrible things about DC traffic, you are right on that!

  • Mrs C
    June 7, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    haha, “DC is Hollywood for ugly people” … how wrong!

    Come see my new post when you can 🙂
    http://mrsjackofalltradesdaily.blogspot.com/2012/06/purple-and-floral-hope-for-peace.html

  • Alexia
    June 7, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I enjoyed this interview! It’s interesting to see/read how others use their creativity to be stylish with their work attire. I am constantly trying to balance looking stylish and professional at the same time . While I’m not sure I’d want to wear a suit to work everyday, I sometimes envy others because I have to wear a white coat over everything, I don’t get to wear cute pumps (because I literally stand 8 hours a day), and even if I do wear a cute bag to work, the only people who see me are the 60 year old+ patients and my locker. I’d love to see more interviews about how women dress at work.

    http://whattowearunder.blogspot.com

  • Shelley
    June 11, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Her website is the first one I recommend to my friends who move to DC. Great article!

  • Erin
    June 13, 2012 at 11:32 am

    I actually like her blog, and don’t mind who she works for or anything. My one issue with her has always been that she doles out advice for success at work, but then consistently responds to commenters during business hours. I understand that you can prepare posts in advance and schedule posts and all that, but I wish she’d practice more what she preached in that area. If I were a constituent, I don’t think I’d be too keen on the idea of a congressional staffer (although she works for the NRA now) talking about shoes and clothes and the merits of wearing or not wearing tights at work.

  • Susan
    June 14, 2012 at 4:07 am

    I have been in the DC area for 3 years but am slowly making my move to Germany. Thanks for introducing me to her blog. I will definitely miss the rich culture and clean, streamlined architecture of DC!

  • margaret
    July 11, 2012 at 7:59 am

    I know it’s been over a month since this interview but I am sad for the people who now dislike Belle because of where she works or that she responds to comments during business hours. I’m sure everyone takes breaks from work and if Belle is a real slacker, she would have been fired by now. I think her blog is great and I hope you all will support her and not judge her.

  • Sarah
    July 17, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    Awww, don’t worry Margaret. We’re just as sad for you. My distaste for her and her do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do lifestyle (responding to blog comments during business hours but deeming herself some sort of professional advice columnist, ‘making fun’ of a trend and then posting/raving about it a mere two weeks later when she finally catches on to anything remotely current in the fashion world) was developed LONG before she finally had the courage to unmask her self. The fact that she works for the NRA is just another reason to abhor all that is Abra Belke.